June 29, 2023


Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 3; Alfred Schnittke: Suite in the Old Style; Schumann: Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano; Amy Beach: Romance for Violin and Piano. Shea-Kim Duo (Brandan Shea, violin; Yerin Kim, piano). Blue Griffin Recordings. $15.99.

Music for Unaccompanied Violin, inspired by contemporary and historical artwork. Dan Flanagan, violin. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     The wide range and considerable flexibility of the violin have made it a go-to instrument for composers for centuries: it allows, indeed encourages, a level of expressivity that creators of all sorts find highly attractive. The new Blue Griffin Recordings disc featuring the Shea-Kim Duo explores some of the differing ways in which composers have used the violin’s expressive potential – looking ahead from their own eras at some times, back toward earlier periods at others. The underlying concept here is that all four composers represented on the disc had ties of some sort to Vienna, but the Austrian connection is at best a thin thread with which to tie this repertoire together. Stylistic contrast is more likely to be what attracts listeners to this CD – that, plus the apparent ease and near-effortlessness with which Brendan Shea and Yerin Kim pick up on each other’s cues and themes to produce performances of unfailing attractiveness. Beethoven’s third violin-and-piano sonata (from his Op. 12 set) dates to 1798, as the composer was still developing elements of his later style. It is a largely genial work, pastoral in some ways, but includes some of the quick dips into drama that were to become a Beethoven hallmark. The gently flowing second movement does not quite have the composer’s suggested molta espressione here, but its sweet geniality is winning. And the bouncy brightness of the concluding Rondo is thoroughly pleasurable. The chronology of this CD is a trifle odd: Beethoven’s sonata is followed by Suite in the Old Style by Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) – a work that dates to 1972 and appears structured even more clearly in Baroque-ish form if one realizes that Schnittke created it for violin and either piano or harpsichord. The five short movements are harmonically more modern than Baroque, but their forms nicely tie together two very different musical eras. After a pleasant opening Pastorale, the ebullient second-movement Ballet and unexpectedly warm third-movement Minuet explore their respective moods to good effect. The upbeat fourth-movement Fugue and mostly quiet and delicate concluding Pantomime – especially the latter, with its elements of considerable dissonance – somewhat give the lie to the “old style” title of the work, but are certainly effective on their own terms. After this sort-of-old-style work, the CD continues with Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 1, a late work (1851) that Schumann said he did not much like, so he wrote a second. Be that as it may, after the comparative lightness of the Schnittke, the Schumann comes on with warmth and mostly darker colors (the home key is A minor): Shea and Kim here thoroughly explore elements of the Romantic temperament. The considerable intensity of the first movement is nicely balanced by the intermezzo-like Allegretto, an odd little piece that is sort of a slow movement, sort of a scherzo, and in rondo form. The lively, Mendelssohn-like finale flows well in this performance, with the periodic exclamatory violin entries and piano chords giving it solemnity. And then the CD concludes with a pleasant Romance from 1893 by Amy Beach (1867-1944) – a warm, gently meandering little encore that partakes of Romanticism but has stripped away much of the angst so apparent in Schumann’s sonata. Like other eclectic collections, this one will be most congenial for listeners who happen to find the juxtaposition of these disparate works apt, and who can sit back and revel in the excellent playing even if the pieces’ sensibilities are not, in and of themselves, especially complementary.

     The unifying principle is very clear on an all-violin MSR Classics CD featuring Dan Flanagan: as the disc’s title says, these 14 world première recordings are all of solo-violin works that were inspired by art. The success rate of transferring representational art to non-representational musical form is debatable: even works such as Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Ravel’s Gaspard de le Nuit gain something when listeners know the art that inspired the music. This is true to an even greater extent when the painters are unlikely to be familiar to most listeners. The composers here, and the artists whose works they have interpreted in musical terms, are Nathaniel Stookey (Rachel Dwan), Jose Gonzalez Granero (Robert Antoine Pinchon), Shinji Eshima (Paul Gibson), Linda Marcel (Nina Fabunmi), Cindy Cox (Victoria Veedell), Evan Price (Sean O’Donnell), Libby Larsen (Nikki Vismara), James Stephenson (Armand Guillaumin), Jessica Mays (Albert Malet), Dan Flanagan (two pieces, one based on Joaquin Turner and one on Jean-François Raffaëlli), Trevor Weston (Albert-Marie Lebourg), Edmund Campion (Ludovic-Rodo Pissarro), and  Peter Josheff (Peter Canty). This extended series of solo-violin works – the disc runs a generous 79 minutes – is a lot to absorb in a single sitting, and listeners intrigued by the concept would be well-advised to sample the material a bit at a time, starting with any composer or painter with whom they may already be familiar. All the works are in the three-to-eight-minute range, their styles varying substantially from the warm and lyrical to the dissonant and disconnected – presumably reflecting their inspirations (mostly paintings, but one work is based on a sculpture and two on pastel drawings). An occasional piece sounds evocative in comparatively clear ways: Price’s Blue Swan features some “watery” flow, for example, and Larsen’s The Only Way Through Is Slow contrasts slow, repeated notes with sudden, quick ones (as if the music does indeed “get through” something in some sense). But the reality is that familiarity with the specific works of art that are here “portrayed” through music is a necessity for full enjoyment – indeed, full understanding – of the pieces that Flanagan performs. Certainly he handles all the music very adeptly, and certainly the pieces, collectively, call for a very wide variety of violin skills, which Flanagan obviously possesses. But this is, foundationally, a disc for a very limited audience, depending on listeners’ familiarity with a wide variety of very specific artistic creations – plus their interest in hearing extended solo-violin performances inspired by those works.

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